Reviving My Childhood Artist

Feb 1, 2023

“All children are born artists, the problem is to remain an artist as we grow up.” —Pablo Picasso

As a child, I was good at drawing, but I never kept up with it. That little artist died in grade school.

He was buried under the burdens of doing well in “real” subjects like mathematics and science, getting into a good university, and pursuing a successful career.

My parents didn’t explicitly stop me from pursuing art. I just never tried to pursue it. It didn’t even occur to me as a thing I could pursue. I thought of art as just another subject I needed to get good grades in, hopefully one that would lift up my overall average.

In South Asian culture there is (still) an assumption of a certain kind of career—doctor, lawyer, engineer—being the only acceptable path of success. Anything else is somewhat of a disappointment. The weight of expectation leaves little room for kids to dream about creative paths. I wonder how many childhood artists die at the kitchen table, buried by overwhelming academic pressure.

Still, I’m still grateful for the career I chose. I fell in love with programming in high school and chose to study Computer Science. I’ve built some really cool software and enjoyed many parts of my journey. Also, my career in the tech industry has given me enough financial stability to explore other things as an adult. I don’t take that for granted.

I’m lucky that art found its way back into my life. That little artist has found a second life.

Drawing came to like a savior to me, when my body and mind was depleted. After a bout with burnout, I went on a sabbatical, and I finally had time to explore the different sides of me I had silenced for so long. I made a little “life list”. One of the things on the list was drawing.

But when I revisited drawing as an adult, I approached it as if I was still that little boy. I wanted to be good at it. I went to an art class and drew this image from reference. The teacher complimented me on having good proportions. It made me feel good. I was an adult, yet in some ways I was still a child, looking for the teacher’s validation.

A sketch of a pot and bananas

But I wasn’t in school anymore, so the natural force function that would normally push me wasn’t there. I was learning for the sake of learning, and the novelty started to wear off.

I got bored. With studying art being the only goal, drawing became a chore.

Boredom led to frustration. I started to hate my own drawings. I was never satisfied with how the human figures turned out. There was always something wrong with the figure, the proportion, the gesture.

One day, my friend Dave offered a solution. He said I should stop trying to draw humans, because I have such a specific idea of how people should look. There’s always room to criticize. Instead, he suggested I draw made-up animals. It was a brilliant idea.

I started drawing all kinds of creatures. I loved it. I would do a drawing and, no matter how the animal looked, I could say it was “correct” because I made them up. My inner critic had no room to critique.

For once, I could draw no wrong. One after the other came the characters.

Sketching a fox, an elephant and a rabbit

One day, I looked at the fox and the elephant. I imagined they would be friends. I wondered, “What’s their story?”

So I drew a comic to tell their story. And then another, and another. I started sharing them in newsletters and essays. My artistic expression had finally found a medium.

The practice of sharing, not studying, kept me drawing.

My first comic strip

The more animals I drew, the more they wandered around in my mind. Little scenes of animals would show up as I went for a walk. My daydreams became a jungle of creatures.

One day, I had a vision about a little bird that couldn’t fly. I could see it in my mind, the whole scene played out. It felt like there was something to learn from this bird’s story. So, I wrote it. It was the first short story I had written.

The story of the little bird turned into my first fable. A little under two years ago, I started writing a book of fables. A week ago, I finished editing them. Now, I’m in a sprint to illustrate my book with a wolf, a dog, a fox, a goose, a turtle, a cat, a horse, and of course, that little bird.

Samples of drawings from my book of fables

This progression of practice—from drawing humans to sketching animals to writing fables—was totally unplanned. You never know where your creativity will lead. It’s impossible to predict, and if you allow yourself to wander, it’s fun to follow.

My drawing journey has been wayward, like a windswept willow. It’s taken me from loving drawing, to not caring at all about it, to being overly serious with it, and back again.

My wayward drawing journey

I want to believe there is still a bit of that little Salman artist in me. I can’t say I remember what he wanted to draw, but I just hope he’s happy to see me drawing.

I like to think that in certain moments when I’m giggling at a funny nose I doodled, he’s giggling too.

I’ll leave you with a parting prompt: Close your eyes and think of the little you. The childhood version of you. Do you see them?

What’s in their hand? What are they itching to do?

It’s not too late to grant that child’s wish. Give their dream a try, even if you just play with it. Perhaps you’ll find yourself smiling as you toy with their task, know that they’re probably smiling too.